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Democracy and “Federalism in the 21st Century”

Heather Gerken, dean Yale Law School

Federalism is a decentralized system in which states play a key role. As a key feature of the nation’s democracy Heather Gerken, dean of Yale Law School visited Grand Valley State University’s Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies. Seeking common ground during these times of political polarization Gerken focuses on “Federalism in the 21st Century” convincing conservatives and progressives that federalism is for everyone. 

“Inevitably the party that is out of power believes in federalism and the party that’s in power believes in the national government. It’s true for both sides. They do it all the time. So what I’m trying to convince people is take a little bit of a step back from their own political fortunes and think about, ‘How’s a democracy supposed to work and how are we supposed to make this democracy function at a time when we are divided as we are?’ And so, that’s going to be the topic of the day is to give up on the fair weather federalism. And I’m clean on this front I’ve been writing about this since 2002. I’ve written about it under both presidential administrations from both parties so I’ve been writing about it for a long time and I really do think it matters for democracy in the right kinds of ways.”

I asked Heather Gerken, dean of Yale Law School how democracy should look in her mind considering everyone ideologies, moving policy forward and how we should treat each other as a society?

“That’s a great question. Sometimes I think the old view of federalism or the idea that if we can’t agree we’ll just divide, right? States will be red or they’re blue and everyone will pursue their own policy. That is not my vision of democracy and one of the things I like about federalism today is that it forces us to interact with one another. So, you may be in a blue state or a red state but you are inevitably going to be effected by policies from another state. So, you have California is having more of an effect on emission standard than Detroit and that drives people crazy, but it also forces them to engage with one another. Or think about Donald Trump at this moment. Donald Trump controls the congress and the presidency. So if he wants to do something at the national level, he can get it done. But the truth is that Donald Trump can’t get most of his policies done without the help of states and cities which means, while he may not have to, you know, Nancy Pelosi, he is going to have to talk to the Mayor of Los Angeles or the Governor of California. That’s just the fact of the matter. That’s healthy in a democracy that is divided like ours. It forces compromise in a way that isn’t happening right now in Washington.

Heather Gerken, dean of Yale Law School, thank you so much.

“Thank you for having me.”